There’s no going back now; we are all part of a global economy. With so many corporations continuing to expand their offices outside their home countries‚ traveling executives are a natural consequence of operating in the 21st century. Although 2010 was the worst year for business travel in the past decade‚ it has now exceeded pre-2008 levels and forecasts look increasingly strong through 2016.
Don’t dismiss leisure travel; it’s even increasing rapidly for non-business travelers. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce‚ more than 1 billion tourists from all over the globe visited the States‚ with the biggest spenders coming from Germany and China. For our industry friends worldwide‚ U.S. corporate and leisure travelers are second only to Chinese travelers in dollars spent.
As global expansion continues‚ so does our understanding of what international travelers need. Executives for a company like Tristar Worldwide‚ which started in London back in 1978 and has since opened offices in Boston‚ New York‚ Hong Kong‚ and Paris‚ can provide a unique glimpse into what it’s like to handle transportation for many different cultures and languages. Three of its executives offer advice on what they’ve learned about handling international travelers.
Just a hop away from London Heathrow Airport‚ Dean De Beer‚ Global CEO of Tristar Worldwide‚ oversees global operations at the company’s headquarters. He manages 550 staff members and a fleet of 450 cars to deliver chauffeur services across Europe‚ the Middle East‚ and India. Since joining the company in 1997‚ De Beer has led its international expansion‚ forging a worldwide network of affiliates and opening offices in several hot markets.
Q: How has Tristar’s international business developed?
“Back when I joined Tristar in 1997‚ we were a U.K.-only company that mainly provided ground transportation for first-class and business-class airline passengers. We were confident that we were delivering an excellent domestic service‚ but knew from our clients that there was also a demand for a connected transatlantic service. Almost immediately after I joined‚ we took our first steps into international waters and began building a network of global affiliates.
“Our international business grew rapidly and‚ when Mike Fogarty joined the company in 2005‚ we knew we had someone on-board who understood the global picture from a U.S. perspective. Mike‚ with years of U.S. ground transportation experience under his belt‚ brought invaluable expertise to the table. Over many bottles of red wine and a lot of late nights spent figuring out how to turn Tristar into a global business‚ we launched our first U.S. office in Boston in early 2006.
“Despite the global slowdown in travel in 2008‚ we still saw an opportunity to grow our customer base and‚ in 2009‚ we opened an Asia-Pacific headquarters in Hong Kong. Today‚ with three teams on three continents‚ we transport more than half a million passengers in over 80 countries each year.”
Q: What’s been the one biggest change in international business over that time?
“Transatlantic travel remains our key market but we have definitely seen a trend in people traveling far more widely. This is reflected in our international network that has grown from 20 countries when we started to over 80 currently. We will continue to develop our network‚ whether it’s by acquisition‚ franchising‚ or simply working more closely with our appointed partners to ensure a seamless service for our customers.”
Q: How has technology affected how you operate?
“Technology is playing an ever-increasing role in how we do business. Our customers progressively want to manage their travel via their smartphones or tablets and want information at their fingertips. In response‚ we recently released our first booking app in the U.K.—we’re planning to roll that out in other territories in the not too distant future.
“From an operational standpoint‚ we’ve installed in-car Wi-Fi across our Platinum vehicles so that international travelers have reliable Internet access as soon as they step out of the airport‚ and we’ve taken advantage of developments in road-safety technology. We keep in touch with our followers over Twitter‚ Facebook‚ and LinkedIn and post every day to keep business travelers updated on potential service disruptions and transport issues. It’s useful for clients to know about global events and weather alerts as soon as possible and social media lets us share information very quickly.”
Opening a U.S Office
As De Beer mentioned‚ he tasked Mike Fogarty‚ CEO Americas‚ with developing the foundation for the London-based company’s first American office. This location delivers services in North‚ Central‚ and South America‚ with clients coming from all around the world.
Q: How are the markets you serve different from Europe?
“For one thing‚ the cars are different. Over in Europe‚ the majority of the fleet is Mercedes-Benz S-Class or E-Class whereas American passengers still prefer Lincolns or Cadillac sedans. Our typical client is slightly different‚ too; we focus more on business travelers and specialize in meeting and event logistics whereas the London office handles a mix of corporate clients and luxury travelers. A typical example of our American business would be the New York conference we just handled. Over three days‚ we supplied chauffeured transportation for 150 senior executives from the financial sector.”
Group business travel‚ especially in the form of road shows‚ has outpaced the growth of individual travelers.
Global Business Travel Association‚ 2014
Q: What do international travelers think of American chauffeurs?
“The majority of our international clients are business travelers from the U.K. and Middle East. Most are frequent fliers‚ so they know that a Boston or New York chauffeur will provide them with a really high level of customer service. If a client flies from Heathrow to JFK‚ we want their chauffeur service to be consistently good at both ends of their journey‚ so we work closely with the London team to make sure we meet a passenger’s language and cultural requirements. That’s even more important when we’re providing cross-continental services for clients from Asia where gaps in culture and language are more pronounced. We’ve seen a big lift in the number of clients from Hong Kong‚ China‚ and Japan over the last few years‚ so we’ve had to adapt our services accordingly.”
Q: What’s different about travelers from Asia?
“I find it fascinating how much client expectations vary depending on whether they’re coming from the U.S.‚ Europe‚ or Asia. While there may not be vast differences between a British traveler coming to the U.S. or an American flying over to London—both regions are English-speaking and they’re not culturally dissimilar—there’s a much larger difference when East meets West.
“With clients from Asia‚ the obvious major difference is the language. More and more business travelers are coming to America from China‚ so our chauffeurs who speak Cantonese and Mandarin are in demand. Some executive travelers from Hong Kong and Singapore may also expect an exceptionally high standard of customer service and might be unaware that U.S. chauffeur services operate under different working time restrictions. For those passengers‚ making sure that they know exactly what service to expect and finding a way to make them comfortable is critical.
“On the other hand‚ clients from Asian countries who are not as familiar with international travel will sometimes request more detailed information about the service. They might not know what to expect from an American chauffeur and may query the route or ask to see a photo of their car. Ensuring they have a good travel experience comes down to good‚ consistent customer service on both ends.”
Riding High in Asia
One of the most recent offices Tristar opened was its Hong Kong location. By all accounts‚ Asia travel continues to outpace the rest of the world‚ including from up-and-coming India. Singapore‚ Japan‚ and Hong Kong continue to be hot destinations as well as places of origin. Gary Au‚ general manager Greater China‚ leads the charge at the office since launching in 2009‚ delivering services across the Asia-Pacific region.
Q: What were the challenges of launching a Western-style chauffeur service in Asia?
“Our three major challenges were sourcing suitable service partners‚ navigating operational restrictions‚ and dealing with diverse language requirements. All Tristar employees in Hong Kong are trilingual‚ speaking English‚ Mandarin‚ and Cantonese as a minimum. Building a network of partners across Asia who had English-speaking control centers and chauffeurs also took considerable time. Convincing chauffeurs in other countries to adopt your standards of service‚ check and double-check passenger details‚ track live travel information‚ and wear your company suit and tie in hot climates isn’t easy. Operating in Hong Kong can also be particularly difficult for chauffeurs; city regulations only allow you to stop for two minutes at a time‚ which makes synchronizing your arrival with your client’s pickup time an art.”
Q: How has business changed since your launch?
“Our standard of service and range of operation grows every day. When we opened our Hong Kong office‚ we catered mainly to inbound business from abroad. Now the majority of our business comes from our clients based in the region.”
Q: What are the most popular destinations for your clients?
“Mainland China‚ Singapore‚ the U.K.‚ and the United States are the most popular destinations for clients flying out of Hong Kong. Most of our clients who travel within Hong Kong request a chauffeur to travel between business meetings. Even since 2009‚ we’ve seen an increase in the number of outbound travelers leaving Asia to explore the rest of the world. Our plan is to be able to support that increase.”
Q: How are Asian clients different from travelers in London or New York?
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Clients from different countries in Asia are almost as different to each other as they are to their European business partners. Travelers from Hong Kong and Singapore are used to receiving very high levels of customer service in their own markets‚ and they expect the same standard wherever they travel. If we’re meeting a passenger at the airport in Hong Kong‚ we will provide a meet-and-greet service to escort the client from the arrivals gate to the limousine lounge and make sure that his car is waiting right outside. Hong Kong clients may not be willing to walk even a small distance to get to their car‚ so service has to be first-class.
“Each nationality also has its own cultural expectations. Clients from mainland China‚ for example‚ would prefer not to travel in a car with a registration plate that includes the number 4 because that number symbolizes misfortune—a bit like the numbers 13 or 666 in the West. In general‚ Chinese travelers will be much happier with a registration plate that features a 3‚ which promises life‚ or the number 8‚ which symbolizes wealth.”
The world is getting smaller‚ and all the data indicate that international travel—despite all of our technology like Skype and video conferencing—shows no signs of slowing down. There’s still value in face-to-face interactions‚ especially in corporate travel. Worldwide business travel is a $1 trillion industry‚ according to the Global Business Travel Association‚ a number it met and surpassed in 2013. Have you grabbed your piece of the pie? [CD0814]